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Yom Ha’atzmaut Feature in One Bilingual Galilee School, Students Seek out Common Ground

When the sirens roar for two minutes at 11 a.m. on Remembrance Day, classmates Ittay Garfunkel and Ahmad Namarneh will part ways. Ittay and his Jewish friends will stand still by the Israeli flag, honoring the 21,781 people who died in the wars since Israel’s inception.

Ahmad and his Arab friends will gather in a nearby class, commemorating the Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe — which is how many Israeli Arabs view the Arab defeat and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Wednesday, when Remembrance Day is observed, will be the only day in the school year that the class splits.

Ahmad and Ittay are seventh-graders at the bilingual Galilee School in Misgav. Misgav is the regional center of several Jewish settlements in the lower Galilee, close to the Arab town of Sakhnin.

Aside from the fact that Sakhnin’s soccer team won Israel’s national cup last year — and its captain, Abbas Suwan, scored a key goal for Israel’s national soccer team in an important recent match against Ireland — Sakhnin is best known to many Israeli Jews as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism and friction in Jewish-Arab relations.

It was here that six local residents were killed during riots following land confiscations in 1976. It was here that violent clashes in October 2000 left four youths dead when Israeli Arabs rioted in solidarity with the nascent Palestinian intifada, and police responded with gunfire.

Most of the Arab students attending the Galilee School come from Sakhnin and neighboring villages. The school is one of four Arab-Jewish schools in the country: Two others operate in Jerusalem and in the predominantly Arab area of Wadi Ara, which links the coastal plan with the Jezreel Valley. A fourth operates in the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Some 170 students study at the Galilee School, which is an initiative of the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab education. Half the students are Jewish and half are Arab.

In the Galilee School, Jewish and Arab children learn side by side in classrooms taught by two teachers, one Arab and one Jew.

Each teacher speaks exclusively in his or her mother tongue, assuring that pupils’ primary linguistic role model in that language is a native speaker. The two teachers complement, paraphrase and talk with one another, but they avoid direct translation, which is considered detrimental to the immersion approach.

By the end of first grade, students have mastered both the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. They ultimately become completely proficient in speaking, reading and writing both languages.

Supporters say seven years of experience at the Galilee School and Israel’s other bilingual schools shows that “indoctrinating” children for tolerance at an early age bears astonishing results in avoiding prejudice, hatred and chauvinism.

“Certainly I realize that when we celebrate Independence Day, it hurts them,” Ittay, who lives in the nearby village of Rakefet, says of his Arab friends. “That’s why they don’t attend our ceremony. When we mourn our dead soldiers, they think about their own dead who were killed by our soldiers.”

“I believe that this is the way it should be done,” agrees Ahmad. “We want to show the other kids. They think that on this day we don’t get along, but we want to show them that we can get along, and how.”

Last week, 25 parents met for a preparation session before Independence/Nakba Day. Only four Arab parents showed up.

That raised eyebrows among the Jewish parents, since Arab attendance generally is high at parent-teacher meetings.

“Some of the parents were either born during the military government era,” which lasted until 1966 and which restricted the freedom of Israeli Arabs, “or are children to parents who lived during those times,” says principal Kamal Abu Yunis. “For some of them it’s not easy to openly speak about the trauma of the Nakba.”

Some 600,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during Israel’s War of Independence, leaving 368 villages deserted.

Nimer Namarneh, Ahmad’s father, said the school was built on his family’s land in fields belonging to the village of Miar, which was destroyed in the 1948 war.

“My family fled because of rumors that the Jews were killing everyone and destroying everything,” he says.

Namarneh knows now the rumors weren’t true. Residents of nearby Sakhnin remained in their homes, raised white flags and became Israeli citizens.

At the Galilee School, Ahmad and Ittay learn both narratives of the country’s history.

“Everyone learns about the other side,” says Ittay’s father, Eldad Garfunkel, who operates an Arabic-translation service. “Two years ago I attended a meeting of Arab school principals who came to our school. They said they doubted whether there was one Arab school in the country which dealt with the Nakba in such depth.”

“If my son had studied at an Arab school, he would not have learned all this,” Namarneh says. “This is the message: While the Jews should rejoice on Independence Day, they should at the same time respect the pain of the other; and when the Arabs mourn that they lost the battle for Palestine, they should accept the State of Israel and respect it.”

“As citizens, we have learned to live with the political reality,” Namarneh says, with no apparent bitterness about his family’s lost lands. “We have to face the present situation as it is. I cannot change it. Both sides bear responsibility for what happened.”

At the parents’ meeting last week, the moderator, an Arab educator, asked all parents to put on paper the holidays dearest to them. Most Jewish parents noted Independence Day, Remembrance Day and Holocaust Day. The Arabs wrote down Nakba Day, Land Day and commemorations of the October 2000 riots.

“There is no meeting point,” one Jewish parent lamented. “The Jews stick to their days, the Arabs to their own days. These are two totally different worlds.”

But then another parent, Dov Koller, raised his sheet. He wrote four days: Holocaust Day, Nakba Day, October 2000 commemorations and Human Rights Day.

He was looking for the missing meeting point; he was trying to make the different worlds merge.

Then he said, “I knew one of the Arab kids who was killed in the October ‘events.’ He was actually killed twice, once when he was shot and secondly when the ambulance didn’t get there in time to save him.”

There is, of course, a limit to mutual empathy, and the Galilee School students were expecting to face it Wednesday. After the separate ceremonies, they will meet up to exchange impressions and feelings.

In past years, children said they didn’t understand why they couldn’t hold one ceremony, which would express both national agendas and raise both the Israeli and Palestinian flags.

“The Israeli flag is hard for me to accept, because they don’t let us stand by our Palestinian flag,” Ahmad says.

But the school was spared the dilemma, under strict orders from the Education Ministry, which bans the raising of Palestinian flags in school.

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